I blame my post-college demise on a card my sister gave me. Wanna see it? WARNING!!! It may be your demise too!
Isn’t it terrible? I mean, just look at how skinny that girl is, and how red her hair is, and how cute her blue trench is against the London skyline with her fancy little dog trotting alongside her politely. And then I had the nerve to frame it in the oh-so-pretty shabby chic frame to romanticize the picture even more.
I know you’re thinking I’m nuts, but what you have to understand is when I saw this card I realized it was the picture of what I wanted my life to be after college, and the moment I saw it I focused all my energy on attaining what this card represented.
There were a few criteria that I established:
1) Live in a big city.
2) Work for a lifestyle magazine in an office with big windows and city views, a velvety desk chair and fresh flowers.
2) Carry around a cute little dog.
3) Buy a fantastic wardrobe.
4) Own designer bags.
5) Have a fabulous social life.
Doesn’t that sound like how the girl in that painting lives?
What I didn’t realize is that when you’re starting out, you can only have all those things if you’re independently wealthy, or if your daddy is paying for your apartment so you can spend your paycheck on clothes and expensive dinners a la Rachel Green. Unlike Rachel, I fell into neither category, yet I still somehow expected the same outcome.
So here’s what happened after college: I lived at home with my parents for a while because the job market was atrocious. I was a nanny to make money to pay my bills (read: cherry limeades from Sonic and stretchy pants from Target), and although I was not living the lifestyle I’d imagined, I forged ahead to fulfill the criteria that I could. I got a dog (7 lb. Malti-Pom named Magnolia) and a designer handbag (Coach, ‘cause it’s all I could afford with the $300 I‘d saved up).
Then one day all my dreams came true — I got offered a job in Washington, D.C.! I was sure everything was falling into place. I happily packed up my stretchy pants, some photo albums and that darned framed card and moved to the Big City a month later. To begin my new job I had to have some kind of wardrobe, so I did something I’d never done before: I walked into a store, found a salesperson, told her to dress me, and paid full price for everything. This was wholly against my bargain shopping upbringing, and it felt like the first step to freedom.
My second step to freedom was buying a new car. I hadn’t factored that into the criteria, but I quickly realized my old, fully paid for car wouldn’t do in D.C.’s harsh winters. (Hey, I’m from the South, D.C.’s winters are harsh to me.) So I sold it for $1500 and used that (along with a generous monetary gift from my mother) as a down payment on a sleek Honda Accord EX Coupe, 6-speed manual, because I’m cool like that. (The next summer that 6th speed cost me $300 for a speeding ticket.)
I also splurged on a mattress, because I needed one anyway and I have a bad back, so I got a deal on a 100% latex mattress — no springs — for $1400. It was originally $2700, so it was really a steal. Amazing, right? Then I noticed my bedding wasn’t all that great, so I bought a new comforter, duvet, countless throw pillows because I just couldn’t seem to get it right, a new bedside table, a new vanity, all new décor for my bathroom, and a lovely $25 Yankee candle to set the mood.
This was all in my first month of my city girl life. I couldn’t believe how much they were paying me — $38,000 a year! I would never make that much money back home! And as soon as that first paycheck came in I could pay off my credit card that I’d maxed out.
Unfortunately I didn’t factor in taxes. I didn’t really factor in how much I was making and how much I was spending, for that matter. That was the first blow.
The second blow was the reality setting in of just how horrible my job was. The work wasn’t what I’d signed on for, the hours were long and I wasn’t getting paid overtime, my boss was hateful, my coworkers were unsupportive, and worst of all everyone dressed like they were just out of college instead of the city girls we were supposed to be. It was all too depressing for me to handle. So I opened another credit card and went shopping some more.
And let’s not forget how much money it costs to keep a dog in an apartment. Non-refundable, exorbitant pet fees, plus monthly fees, plus vet bills, grooming bills, organic food bills because the yuppies at the dog park make me feel bad for feeding her the generic stuff, poop bags, jackets, raincoats, whitening shampoo, birthday parties…
My first year in D.C. I racked up an obscene amount of credit card debt. I bought ridiculous shoes that were too uncomfortable to actually wear (they’re still sitting in my closet, barely touched). I splurged on cupcakes every chance I got to comfort my job sorrows. I packed my teeny apartment with platters, candle holders, decorative foam balls, rugs, vintage candy dishes, lamps and fuzzy throws. I brought home more books than I could read in a lifetime. I didn’t know it then, but I was self-medicating because moving to D.C. had broken my city girl dream, but the more I spent the more depressed I became. On top of that I gained 20 pounds. TWENTY POUNDS. I’d never fluctuated more than five my entire adult life!
Finally, a year and a half later, I’d had enough. I was partly inspired by Becky’s dad in “Confessions of a Shopaholic” who told her “MMM” or “Make More Money” as a solution to her debt problem. It was so obvious! Why hadn’t I thought of that before? So I regrouped, reset my criteria and focused, determined as a honey badger to get out of this mess. I decided:
1) Find new job worthy of my excellent taste in clothes (even though I was wearing a lot of elastic-waisted pants at that point).
2) Sell car (since I take public transportation everywhere).
3) Get good quality, stylish bags on eBay made by not well-known designers for $30 instead of $300.
4) Obviously lose twenty pounds.
5) PAY OFF DEBT. (I mean, really. I have no student loans and therefore should have no debt. Really.)
Now, as I’m about to hit my four-year mark living here, I’m working in a job and office that I look forward to going to every day, and yes, MMM. There are no windows, no plush chairs and no fresh cut flowers. Not everyone dresses like I do, and that is just dandy because the different styles keep life interesting. Oh, and the magazine career? I tried freelancing and hated it. But it turns out there was a place for me in Public Affairs. Who knew the other side of journalism could be so fun?
No one has bought my car because everyone takes public transportation. I carry a tote I got free with purchase at a store in the mall. Magnolia eats Iams that I buy at Rite Aid and she’s healthy as a horse. She hate outfits so we don’t do that anymore. I no longer buy shoes that are altogether impractical, and I’m about five pounds shy of what I was when I moved here (I eat a lot of green vegetables now and only have cupcakes as a treat).
I’m still paying off that debt, but it’s gone way down and I’m on a steady plan to get it to zero. I live on a budget and within my means, which is quite a novel concept and I’m glad I invented it and can share it with the world.
Last weekend I was in the post office to mail a package to my mother. I had Magnolia with me and saw no signage that indicated she wasn’t allowed inside. When I made it to the front of the 20-person long line, a postal worker told me I’d have to remove her and come back. So I took her outside, tied her around a post, and re-entered, hopeful someone would let me back in line, because I would offer that to someone in my situation. Instead everyone avoided eye contact.
The old me would have sheepishly gotten in the back of the line or given up altogether and gone home. But the wiser me spoke up: “Would anyone let me hop back in line?” They could have continued avoiding eye contact if they didn’t want to let me in.
But the man at the front quickly replied with a scowl on his face: “Well since you’re a princess, yes! Please cut in front of me!”
I stood in the post office, frozen in the bitter stares of everyone else waiting for my move. And then I opened my mouth and announced, “All right, I will. Thank you,” and walked to the front.
I wanted to turn to the grumpy man behind me and tell him, “Sir, I am farther from being a princess than I’d ever like to admit.” Instead I reveled in the knowledge that I had attained something in that painted card I hadn’t noticed before — confidence. Once I let go of all my silly fantasies of how my life should be, I got grounded in reality and found a strong, level-headed woman under all the frivolous behavior.
And really, isn’t that what being a true princess is all about?
Mary El is a wistful city girl who still loves cake and shoes she can’t afford, even though she’s finally gotten her massive caloric daily intake and spending/borderline hoarding habits under control. Read about her adventures on her blog “Cupcakes and Shoes” and follow her often ridiculous thoughts and sometimes helpful tips on Twitter.
If you are interested in contributing to the Quarterlife Crisis series feel free to contact me.